Who would be a coal miner? Your world consists of seeing daylight twice in the day: once before descending into the pit face in the morning, and once again when coming up for the return home at night. Aside from that, you live your life underground in bad air, doing backbreaking work, and risking sudden death from trapped gases or a sudden cave in.
How much has really changed for the mining communities in the last seventy years is hard to quantify. The miners still go down into the pit every day, to chip away at the pit face and load up the carts with coal. Maybe the mines are better ventilated now than before, and their safety is a little more assured, but disasters still happen.
Miners still are trapped below the surface and families still gather at the pit head waiting for news of their loved ones as teams of their fellows descend in sometimes-fruitless attempts to dig them free before they suffocate, or simply starve to death. Of course, now instead of it being a private community affair, it is telecast across the world as camera crews enjoy the deathwatch for their viewers.
Black lung is still a cause of death among miners, as their lungs slowly fill up with coal dust and iron filaments from working in the pits. However, the world still burns coal, and as long as it does, we will keep sending people down into the depths of the earth to bring it back to the surface.
The history of the American trade unions is irrevocably linked to the coalmines. If there was ever an industry where the workers needed someone to stand up to their bosses it was the miners in the early part of the twentieth century. What some of us would consider horrendous working conditions today, are light years away from what the miner’s life used to be.
Old folk songs like “Sixteen Tons” aren’t just cute lyrics, they were an accurate description of the miner’s life. They lived in houses owned by the company, they bought their food and goods from stores owned by the company, and they could very well die owing money to the company that they worked — and probably gave their life — for.
In the United States, a small county in Kentucky, Harlan County, has come to symbolize the coal miner’s fight for rights and safety in the eyes of many people. Not only is it smack dab in the middle of coal country, but in 1976 Barbara Kopple released her documentary Harlan County U.S.A., which depicted a protracted and bitter coal miner’s strike.
A miner’s strike doesn’t just affect the folk in the pit, but the whole community. Sometimes it’s the wives who are the strongest advocates because they’re the ones who face the reality of having to live with the fear of losing their husbands to the earth and disease.
They’re the ones who are left behind with nothing when the pit caves in because the company owns the house they live in and the company owns the store they buy food from. They can either leave town or sell their family into indentured servitude by mortgaging their children’s future to the mines by living on credit, until their children can work it off.
First the movie and now the soundtrack CD Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle emphasize the role that women have played over the course of the years in the fight for miner’s rights. The seminal union song “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece while she sat in her house with company thugs outside waiting for her husband to come home so they could kill him.
When you listen to this CD of music both from the movie and the related topic of striking miners, you won’t hear the organizing songs that you may be accustomed to. These haven’t been smoothed out by urban folk groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary to sound nice and polished to the ear. These are songs sung by people from Kentucky and the Appalachians, singing about their husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, and neighbours.
People like Jim Garland who went to work in the mines although he was legally blind is recorded for the first time singing his song “The Death of Harry Simms”. Harry Simms was a young union organiser who stayed with Jim and his family until he was murdered. Shortly after that Jim was blacklisted by the mines and moved to New York City at the invitation of the miner’s union to tell the story of Harry.
His sister Sarah Ogan Gunning and half-sister Molly (the folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson) worked as a duo singing at rallies and organizing meetings. She eventually had to leave the mining life when brown lung and tuberculosis forced her to move away from the pit life. This CD features her singing her sister’s adaptation of the traditional “Hard Working Miner”.
“Coal Black Mining Blues” is sung by Nimrod Workman who was born in Kentucky in 1895 and survived four decades of working in the mines in the days before health care, safety, and decent pay. His songs bore witness to the history of the miner’s struggle from the days when the union was the miner’s best friend and their subsequent corruption and betrayal of the people they were supposed to represent. In spite of black lung he lived until the age of 99, and passed in 1995.
Not all the music on this disc is performed by former miners of course, but most all of them are native to this region. Merle Travis, who wrote the earlier mentioned “Sixteen Tons”, the song that has become the most synonymous with the miner’s live, was born in Kentucky. Doc Watson was born in North Carolina and even if you know nothing about bluegrass music or the Appalachians, his name is probably familiar to most of you. His contribution is a haunting rendition of the traditional tune “And Am I Born to Die”
But, it’s the women whose voices ring loudest on this disc. The voice of Phyllis Boyens, daughter of Nimrod Workman, appears on a couple of songs, including the aptly named “Dream Of A Miner’s Child”, but the woman who sings the harmony vocal on that track, Hazel Dickens, sings the loudest and clearest of them all.
Hazel Dickens has been a force in traditional bluegrass and old-time music for the last forty years. As a native of West Virginia she was well acquainted with the lives led by the coal miners and their families, so it wasn’t a great leap to include her music in the soundtrack of the original Harlan County U.S.A. movie.
To those of you used to the prettified music that passes for country and bluegrass these days her voice will sound unspeakably rural and unrefined. But it’s the voice of the people of that region, and speaks both for and to them. She is part of that unbroken line that leads back to Woody Guthrie’s songs for the Appalachian farmers and workers during the dust bowl.
It’s when you listen to people like Hazel, that you can hear who Bob Dylan was trying to sound like when he first started out. That burr in the throat and the high nasal twang that is so distinctive among the singers from this area even today. It’s different from the Nashville country twang like a dirt road is different from a paved highway. They both do the same thing, one’s just a whole lot rougher and it takes a while to appreciate its particular beauty.
The songs Hazel sings, whether her own or another’s, on this disc couldn’t be sung by anyone who didn’t have all the elements that go into being a mountain singer without them losing something of their power. These aren’t just protest songs, they are the stories of real people who have lived and died under the ground, been killed for fighting to make life better for their fellows, or have chocked away their lives unable to breath because of black lung.
Coal miners have always been the dirty secret of industry that nobody wants to know about. They live and work in conditions that even today border on the insane. When that elevator drops, they still don’t know whether or not it will come back up at the end of the day. How many coal mine disasters have there been this year? Every year we still get at least one that will leave a community devastated.
The songs on Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs Of The Coal Miner’s Struggle maybe union songs and protest songs, but they are also a reminder of the cost that is paid on a daily basis by a segment of our society so that we can have electricity by which to read at night, or watch our televisions, or write reviews like this. These songs are a history that most of us will never read or hear about in school or on the news. You may not agree with the politics espoused by the music, but you can’t deny the strength of the people they portray.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Americans is their ability to stand up and fight for what they believe in. To me this CD epitomizes that spirit through the words and music recorded that depict the struggles and the lives of these brave people called coal miners. If it serves no other purpose than to remind people of the fact that to stand up for yourself isn’t a bad thing, and that the people who do are what make a country strong, than Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs Of The Coal Miner’s Struggle will be a success.